In the new TV show, Tracker, Justin Hartley plays a character called Colter Shaw. His job is to track missing people and get a reward if he is successful. In the season pilot, Jack adopts what Annie Duke in her book, Thinking in Bets, refers to as probabilistic thinking. This is the philosophical concept that probability is the best criterion in the absence of certainty. Probabilistic thinking calculates the chances of a specific outcome occurring based on current information.
The opening scene of the pilot episode begins with Colter beside a female hiker (Jesse) in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, with a broken leg pinned by a rock. Colter tries to reassure her while assessing the situation.
Jesse: Can we just stay here?
Colter: I guess we could stay here, we could wait for a rescue team to come and airlift you out of here on a stretcher. We are talking maybe five hours. Four, best case scenario? So if we stay I put your odds of survival, leg intact at 15-20%.
(Jesse starts crying)
Colter: But if you let me stabilise your injury and carefully carry you out of here, those odds for you and your leg go way up.
Jesse: They do?
Colter: They do. I am talking about 90-95%. I am going to scoop you up okay?
Jesse: Okay.Tracker Episode 1: Klamath Falls
In a later scene, Colter and a young boy are hanging onto a truck dangling over a cliff. There is a long drop into the river below. Colter has a gunshot wound in his arm and losing blood. The boy is frightened and not a good swimmer. The rescue team are on their way but Colter has a decision to make.
Colter: We are going to be okay. It’s gonna be a while, though. They got to get boats in the water and we are looking at about half an hour. That is if this truck does not slide off in the meantime. Are you a strong swimmer?
Colter: so-so is okay. I am a pretty strong swimmer. The thing is I got shot and I am losing a lot of blood, which means I am losing a lot of strength. Pretty soon it’s going to be impossible for me to swim. So if we let go now
Boy: Let go?
Colter: If we let go right now, I give my odds of swimming us both to safety about 95%. The longer we wait, the lower those odds get. You trust me?
Colter: Okay. We let go on three. You got to be brave, alright?Tracker Episode 1: Klamath Falls
Colter uses his experience and expertise to determine the probability chances of success. You will notice in both scenes that he doesn’t offer 100% certainty. He offers a very high likelihood of success but never certainty based on his assessment of the situation.
We live in a probabilistic world despite our craving for certainties, guarantees and absolutes.
The medical field employs a lot of probabilistic thinking because it realises that certainty is impossible in most circumstances. Medical diagnoses for life-threatening diseases are usually delivered in probabilistic terms to the patient. An oncologist, based on his experience and expertise, will tell a cancer patient that she has an 85% chance of survival based on her cancer type and stage.
Annie Duke said that “forcing ourselves to express how sure we are of our beliefs brings to plain sight the probabilistic nature of those beliefs, that what we believe is almost never 100% or 0% accurate but, rather, somewhere in between.”
In summary, probabilistic thinking acknowledges the roles of uncertainty, randomness and incomplete information. These are all things we have no control over and to pretend we do will only lead to disappointment and disaster.
Burn Book: A Tech Love Story – I am a big fan of Kara Swisher and enjoyed this book. She is the co-host of the Pivot podcast with Scott Galloway which I listen to weekly. Burn Book is a part memoir and part tech history. Swisher has worked as a tech reporter for most of her career and had front-row seats from the inception of the Internet in the 90s to the present day.
She chronicles in the book her encounters with tech royalty such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick etc.
She is the type who speaks truth to power and refuses to take bullshit from anyone no matter who they are. This anecdote of a job interview after graduation captures her personality then and now.
Once, I interviewed for an internship at the Washington Post, and the editor said I was “too confident.” I’ve since come to understand that this is something men say to women to shut them up and undercut them. I was not going to let that happen. And so, I replied: “I’m not too confident. I’m fantastic. Or I will be.” I have always, always been like this. It’s hard to neg me. Those who do only encourage me to try to win even more.Burn Book: A Tech Love Story
It is clear from this book how much Swisher loves her job and that passion has helped her to put in the time and effort to build a long and sustainable career.
My two takeaways from the book are:
- Know yourself and play to your strengths.
- Life is too short to do things that won’t matter in the long term.
The only certainty I can offer for those of us with meat flaps is that everyone’s analog life will end at some point, even if your digital presence will endure into the ages hence. This was, of course, the most important lesson I learned at a young age when my father died so suddenly. He thought he was headed for the big time and then he just fell over one day, and that has informed everything I’ve done since. Which is to say, I don’t have time to wallow. You don’t have time, either. Nobody has time.Burn Book: A Tech Love Story
Silicon Valley had perfected the image of itself as a meritocracy and touted that as one of its greatest strengths—that anyone could become a billionaire. In fact, tech has always been a mirrortocracy, full of people who liked their own reflection so much that they only saw value in those that looked the same. They keep copying themselves, choosing slight variations on the same avatar template. Financial success was proof of their talents, which was like the old cliché of starting on third base and thinking you hit a home run.Burn Book: A Tech Love Story